The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 14, 2012

Community offers bully task force solutions

By Amanda Dyslin
Free Press Staff Writer

NORTH MANKATO — Ceceli Polzin of St. Peter has seen her community become quite diverse the past few years, and she and her family now live in a neighborhood rich with different cultures.

Polzin realized one day that she hadn’t extended her hand in friendship to the Latino, African-American or Somali families living around her. And she realized how difficult it must be for them with certain stigmas that area residents were assigning. Admittedly, she said, even she had had a couple of passing prejudicial thoughts about a family on the block.

“I realized, who am I to say we need to do something about this if I’m not willing to engage people in my neighborhood?” Polzin said to a group of other parents, school officials, counselors and others Monday night at South Central College for a listening session conducted by members of the governor’s Task Force for the Prevention of Bullying.

So Polzin did just that. She made an effort to engage her neighbors, and the mother of one family has thanked her ever since for doing so.

“One by one, you make an impact,” she said. “This is how it starts.”

Polzin echoed a common theme that arose in a room of about 30 people: Two important ways to combat the prevalent issue of bullying are to reach out to those being bullied, and to realize that bullying is a community issue, not a just school issue.

One by one, people with varying perspectives provided task force co-chairs Walter Roberts and Julie Herzog with answers to several questions, including their major concerns about bullying, what parents need to know, and what is working to combat the problem.

The task force was created by Gov. Mark Dayton late last year to examine the practices and policies in place to prevent bullying and provide the governor and Legislature with recommendations for changes by August. The group also will study bullying laws in other states and identify effective policies that could be emulated in Minnesota.

“Really, the reason I’m here is ... we have to start taking the responsibility as adults,” Polzin said. “Kids look to adults. ... It really is up to us.”

Ginny Nimmo, a school psychiatrist in Mankato Area Public Schools, was one of various participants to bring up the issue of cyber bullying. Several people stated that, years ago, children could come home to a safe place and escape harassment. But now with Facebook, Twitter, texting and numerous other digital avenues, the bullying continues at home.

“I’ve seen a real shift,” Nimmo said, adding that old-fashioned nasty comments in the hallway have turned into an “incredibly harmful experience” online. “The cyber piece is really concerning me.”

New Ulm Supt. Harold Remme agreed, stating that the Internet age has taken bullying to a whole new level.

“This is an area, yet, that we haven’t been able to control or manage,” he said.

One parent offered her simple, personal solution to Facebook bullying: oversight. She said she OKs all of her kid’s friends before friending them. And she always knows what’s going on with the account.

A father said parent involvement is an important solution, making sure to establish clear behavioral expectations. He said he has met numerous parents who seem to be bullied by their own kids, or are timid about asserting authority and ensuring respect.

“Don’t give up on your ability to parent your kids,” he said.

Other suggestions for solutions included teaching children ways to de-escalate a bullying situation, providing them with things to say when they are being bullied or witnessing another child being bullied. Kim Peterson, a school nurse in Mankato schools, said a gesture as simple as learning all the students’ names in schools would help to make each student feel connected to school staff.

And several adults said not to forget that bullies are probably victims too. Many don’t have strong parental role-models or a safe and secure home life. So reaching out to the bullies, themselves, is key.